Dog bites man.

Pets and people.
Nov. 19 2004 1:10 PM

Dog Bites Man

Not a story—a national crisis.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Spice was a sweetheart, gentle with kids, the best pal of my border collies, generous with her toys and snacks, happy to play tug of war and chase endlessly across suburban lawns. Her owner Jan, an ad executive in my northern New Jersey town, was deeply involved in dog rescue. She believed it immoral to spend hundreds of dollars for a purebred dog (like mine) when so many dogs are in shelters facing death. Accordingly, she had plucked Spice—a 3-year-old mix of pit bull, Labrador retreiver, and probably a few other breeds—out of a Brooklyn animal shelter days before she was slated for euthanasia. Jan didn't know anything about her history, except that she'd been found on the street, half-starved and beaten, and that "because she was a pit, she didn't have much of a shot at being adopted."

So Jan bypassed calmer and easier shelter dogs and brought Spice home, trained her conscientiously and consistently, loved and pampered her. Spice proved a wonderful pet—obedient, easygoing, affectionate. I had no hesitation about her playing with my dogs, and I listened sympathetically as Jan complained about harassment and what she called "breed prejudice"—that fear of pit bulls that caused people who encountered them to grab their kids and dogs and cross the street.

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Despite Spice's gentleness, some of the neighbors were afraid of her. They circulated petitions and ordered their kids to stay away. Jan's landlord threatened eviction if the dog so much as looked menacingly at a mailman, and her insurance rates rose sharply. "If the dog even sticks her head out the door off leash, somebody calls the police," Jan groaned.

Last fall, while they were walking in a park, a Pekingese slipped out of its collar and dashed toward Spice and Jan, growling and barking. Spice, startled, almost reflexively grabbed the dog's head in her mouth, bit down, and hung on. Neither Jan nor a horrified dog owner passing by could get Spice to loosen her grip. The smaller dog yelped, then went still. The Peke's owner, a woman in her 60s strolling with her 5-year-old grandson, screamed and rushed up to intervene. Spice had always been friendly and reliable around children, but now she was aroused, almost frantic. People were shouting. The boy cried and screamed in fear.

It all happened in a few seconds. Spice bit both the woman, who required 30 stitches in her arm, and the child, who after surgery still had small but permanent facial scars and most likely some psychological ones. The animal-control authorities seized the dog. Local ordinances meant near-certain euthanasia.

Jan hired a lawyer and went to court to try to save Spice. "It was terrible," she said, "but it was not the dog's fault. You could see she was sorry. That Peke ran at her, the woman and the kid came charging up. I am terribly sorry it happened, but she is a wonderful pet. I love her to death. She was walking calmly, on a leash and under control. She doesn't deserve to die."

But the judge, in consultation with two local vets who worked with the town shelter, ruled that the dog was dangerous. Jan had implored me, "as a dog lover and dog writer," to testify at the hearing and write letters on Spice's behalf to the judge and the vets. She wanted me to affirm that Spice was gentle and that Jan was a responsible owner. She agreed to muzzle Spice when they walked and confine her in a new backyard fence she would build. She even considered moving in with her mother in a rural area farther west, where there'd be less contact with people.

I thought about how I should respond.

As America's love affair with dogs has deepened, some dog lovers and those in the rescue and animals rights movements have advanced the idea of "no-kill" policies in public shelters, where virtually all dogs—especially those considered "adoptable"—would be kept alive, for years if necessary, until homes are found for them or they die natural deaths.

Pit bulls would probably be prominent among such residents. Known for strong mouths and aggressive behavior, pit bulls have become both the target of anti-dog activists and the focal point for many rescuers, precisely because they're hard to place. Pits (Staffordshire terriers, their partisans prefer to call them) usually make wonderful, safe pets. But when they do attack, they often cause much more damage since they have a greater ability to injure people.

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